It’s more than a few years since I wrote this article on the misunderstandings between M1 and M2, or modal and falsetto vibrations.
Unfortunately, the confusion is still out there, with teachers saying “you can’t get a clear sound in falsetto” or “countertenors sing in the same way as baritones, just higher up”.
So I’m updating it with the clearest version of our understanding I can write. I really hope this helps to clarify the science and use of modal and falsetto. Let me know in the comments box!
Gillyanne and I have worked for years to understand the deeper techniques of working with voices in different genres. The sound palettes required, the techniques to fit the singer’s performing context, the expectations of the genre. In this extended article I’ll be focusing on one aspect of vocal performance and training – the mode of vibration of the vocal folds themselves.
Creak, modal, falsetto & whistle
There are four distinct ways that the vocal folds move – creak, modal, falsetto and whistle.
Mythbuster #1: You can mix vibrations.
Nope, they are entirely separate and mutually exclusive. You can’t vibrate in more than one mode at a time (although you can switch very quickly from one to another). And you can’t have one vocal fold in modal and one in falsetto. Well, not if you want to continue singing as a career….
Here’s what makes sense to us now (and some of it might surprise you)…
Classical singing styles
Let’s start with the men, since much of the historical vocal training, voice science and jargon is based on male voice use.
All classical men sing primarily on a modal vibration
Except countertenors who sing on a falsetto vibration.
Most classical women sing primarily on a falsetto vibration with resonance strategies to boost and darken the sound.
Female chest voice in classical singing is a change of vibration mode from falsetto to modal, but using the same darkening/boosting resonance strategies that they employ in the (falsetto) upper range. Hence chest voice in classical women doesn’t go much above E4 or F4 because there’s too much back-pressure from the supraglottic shaping, and the sound wouldn’t be “refined” enough if the resonance strategies were changed.
Mythbuster #2: You’ll damage your voice singing in chest voice above F4.
The paragraph above explains why classically biased singing teachers believe that taking chest voice higher than F4 is damaging to the voice. It’s not, but it could be if you don’t change the resonance strategies and the subglottal and supraglottal back-pressure used in classical singing. Gillyanne and I have worked extensively with classically trained singers using techniques to expand their sound palette to include contemporary vocals and “chest-based” singing to C above middle C and beyond. I recently worked with a working Wagner soprano to show her (in three hours) how to take her chest voice comfortably and healthily up to E5.
Classical countertenors do approximately the same as the female classical singers, using falsetto vibration and boosting/darkening resonance strategies in their middle and upper range, then switching to a modal vibration with the same boost/dark resonance strategies at the lower end of their countertenor range (from around C4 – middle C – downwards).
Other male classical voices (tenor, baritone, bass) don’t have the equivalent “chest voice” to dip into because they’re already in a modal vibration. Male head voice (not countertenor falsetto) is a lighter modal with less subglottic pressure.
With us so far?
Contemporary singing styles
Things are slightly different in contemporary singing styles.
Men in contemporary commercial and Musical Theatre genres sing in modal with excursions into falsetto when needed, and they can use either with the same or different resonance strategies (clear modal, breathy modal, clear falsetto, breathy falsetto, warm/dark/bright/light/ etc etc).
R&B men tend to sing in falsetto like countertenors but without the darkening and boosting strategies. They are still able to adduct the vocal folds so the sound is clear. It’s often relatively small in volume because they have mics and don’t need to project.
Women in R&B/pop and many other genres including jazz sing in modal (clear or breathy) with excursions into falsetto (and whistle and creak) as needed
Voice use for women in Musical Theatre is worth examining a little deeper.
Women in Musical Theater in the US tend to sing on an adducted falsetto vibration above G4/A4 as a default, and also use modal up to D/E/F5 when required
Musical Theatre women in the UK tend to sing in modal up to C/D5 as a default, and also use falsetto up and down as required.
It’s this fundamental difference in default setting between F4 and C5 that confuses the singers (and pedagogical community). The mental and vocal starting point seems to be different between the countries, so expectations, labels, training and voice use are also fundamentally different.
Mythbuster #3: Soft belting
It might also explain why in the US we have teachers talking about “soft belting” (which when you think about it is an oxymoron – albeit a quiet one). If your default is adducted falsetto above F4, anything in modal above F4 is going to feel different and need a different label. So a quiet modal at B4 becomes “soft belting”, possibly because the teacher doesn’t have a more precise label to work with.
In other words, notice the default starting point of your singer(s) and translate overseas instructions based on the singer in front of you.
Mix voice – an explanation
The Mix (note the capital letters) seems to be the holy grail of singing teaching. The Mix is apparently the magical sound that works for everything, makes power sounds easier, lyrical singing smoother, milk creamier, tea more refreshing, and will do the dishes for you.
Why is there so much confusion about mixing? Because the human vocal mechanism is capable of making very similar sounds using very different techniques. That means there is no “one way” to sing, and there is no right or wrong way to make a particular tonal quality. One man’s head mix is another man’s adducted falsetto with resonance boosting.
For the vast majority of singing, the vocal folds with be moving in two of the four patterns of vibration – modal or falsetto. In most voices there is a large overlap in pitch between where your modal sounds work best and where your falsetto sounds work best. You can in fact sing more than an octave in either modal or falsetto. You just can’t sing both together because vocal fold vibrational patterns don’t happen simultaneously.
Because vocal sound production isn’t linear, you can alter resonating strategy above the vocal folds (supralaryngeal shaping) to feature or disguise what vibrational mode you’re in. And this is the important bit, the same shapes don’t give you the same results when changing vocal fold vibration mode. Mixes are really a whole set of different resonating strategies. So holding exactly the same resonance shape and changing from modal to falsetto will give you a different sound (projection, tonal colour, even level of adduction).
In other words, you can hold a particular shape in the vocal tract, choose whether the vocal folds vibrate on a modal or a falsetto vibration, and instantly get a different sound/persona.
…if you want the sound to match you can change your vocal fold vibration pattern AND your resonating strategy and fool quite a lot of people. That means we leave behind the limitations of “this mix/these four categories/these six sounds” of vocal methods, and you enter the real creative world of the performer.
As a fan of cartoons, and the author of a chapter on beatboxing techniques, I know that there is much more to voicing than standard classical singing techniques, and that any sound is possible and EVERY sound is being used by someone somewhere.
Fundamental questions for voice analysis & training
So in singing voice analysis and in singing training, the fundamental questions are:
- what vibrational mode is happening at vocal fold level,
- what resonating strategies does the singer use,
- what breath flow amounts and speeds are being used,
- do they all work together or is something out of balance for that particular “mix”
- Is it appropriate to the situation, is it doing the job the singer wants and does it tell the story/portray the emotion successfully?
Oh yes, and
- Is it repeatable 8 shows a week for a year or 45 weeks of the tour, in rain or shine, in sickness and in health, as long as ye both shall live?
At Vocal Process we base our teaching, vocal diagnosis and vocal acceptance on these questions, and no sound is off-limits. These six questions are simple to ask but complex to put into practice. As teachers we need to know where we ourselves are coming from, the history of our singing training, what beliefs about singing we ourselves carry, what filters (conscious or unconscious) we listen through, and how accurate our diagnosis and understanding of mechanics and human physiology is.
If you want to see us teaching what we’re describing here, check out the Best Practice Update course on the Learning Lounge here
You can also find out more about modal, falsetto and everything in between in our online Vocal Registers webinars, starting with Taking Chest Voice Higher
Or join our latest online course “12 Hours to Better Singing Teaching” here
If you really want to know how we diagnose now, work with us in person. Click here to book a mentoring session with either of us and get personal, targeted techniques for your voice.
We’re happy to help